Article by Matt Smith, lead writer at www.baseballGB.co.uk

The 2010 National Baseball League (NBL) season gets underway this Sunday, April 18  British baseball’s premier division contains eight teams this year, including three teams new to the top tier.  Each club will play a 28-game schedule made up of four fixtures each against the other seven teams over a period of fifteen weeks.

The top two teams will automatically qualify for the National Baseball Championships (NBC), a double-elimination tournament scheduled for the weekend of September 4-5.  The teams finishing third to sixth will play single playoff games (3rd v 6th, 4th v 5th) to determine the other two entrants to the NBC.

The NBL promises to be a fascinating competition and there is a real sense of optimism that this season could be one of the most competitive we’ve seen for many years. The mixture of established NBL teams and newcomers should make for many intriguing storylines as the season unfolds.

Time to introduce the eight teams.

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Bracknell Blazers (2009 NBL Champions) website

2009 will go down in British baseball history as the year in which the Bracknell Blazers broke their 17-year duck and secured a championship at the highest level for the first time. The Blazers finished third in the NBL regular season with a 14-10 record and stormed into the National Baseball Championships riding a five-game winning streak. A defeat to the London Mets in their opening NBC game meant that the Blazers couldn’t afford to lose again — and they didn’t. The Blazers won three games on the final Sunday, eliminating the Herts Falcons and Mets and then coming from behind to beat the Richmond Flames 16-4 in the Grand Final.

Although they’ve lost an important veteran in former Great Britain player (and Baseball on 5 pundit) Josh Chetwynd, the likes of the Trask brothers remain and having had a taste of success, they are sure to want to get to the NBC again and retain their hard-won title.

Opening Day: a doubleheader away to the London Mets.

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Richmond Flames (2009 NBL runner-up and NBL regular season Champion: 17-7) website

Until destiny favoured the Blazers, 2009 looked like being the year of the Flames. Richmond finished the regular season with a 17-7 record after sweeping a doubleheader against the London Mets on the final day. The two wins brought them level with the Mets in the won-lost column, and because Richmond won the season series head-to-head against London, they took the NBL regular season title on that tiebreaker. The Flames then won their opening two games in the NBC to qualify for the Grand Final, only for the Blazers to bring their season to a crushing end.

That made it two straight Grand Final defeats. It’s a disappointing record for the Flames, but also shows that they have been one of the very best teams in the country over that period, a point emphasised by fielding the Most Valuable Batter (Ryan Bird) and Most Valuable Pitcher (Cody Cain) in 2009, as awarded by the Great Britain Baseball Scorers Association. Is 2010 the year that the Flames finally finish off their good work?

Opening Day: a doubleheader away to the Croydon Pirates.

London Mets (2009: 17-7) website

After winning back-to-back NBLs in 2007 and 2008, the London Mets fell just short of making it three in a row in 2009. The Mets lost some key players last year from their title-winning team, particularly towards the end of the regular season and for the NBC. Although it didn’t match up with their recent successes, a second-place regular season finish was still a very worthy achievement and the team based at Finsbury Park will be a threat once again in 2010.

Opening Day: a doubleheader at home against the Bracknell Blazers.

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Herts Falcons (2009: 12-12) website

The Herts Falcons had a very creditable first season in the NBL in 2009 following their promotion as 2008 AAA League champions. Nobody knew quite how they would cope with the step-up in standard, but winning three of their first four games helped to settle any nerves they may have had and they ended up qualifying for the NBC with a .500 record. After holding their own and proving they belong in the top tier, the Falcons will try to push on in 2010.

Opening Day: a doubleheader at home against the Southampton Mustangs.

Croydon Pirates (2009: 0-24) website

Nobody likes to see a former great crash to earth with an undignified thump, but that’s the fate that befell the winless Croydon Pirates last year. Back-to-back champions in 2004 and 2005 and losing finalists in 2006 and 2007, the Pirates’ 5-19 regular season record in 2008 had already called time on their excellent run and 2009 put the nails in the coffin. Croydon saw a lot of their championship-winning players depart and struggled to replace them, resulting in the team forfeiting a number of games in 2009 due to a lack of NBL-standard players. The only way is up and the Pirates' organisation will now be focused on laying the foundations for a team capable of emulating the glorious 2004-2007 era.

Opening Day: a doubleheader at home against the Richmond Flames.

Essex Arrows (2009: 25-0 in the AAA South) website

The Essex Arrows are one of three teams making their NBL debuts this season. Their perfect regular season record at AAA level last year made them prime contenders to join the top tier and they duly accepted the BBF’s invitation. But 2009 didn’t end in quite the way the Arrows had hoped. Although they extended their winning streak to 26 games by defeating the Liverpool Trojans at the AAA NBC, they were then knocked out of the event by losing to the Harrogate Tigers and Southampton Mustangs. The end couldn’t mar an excellent season and with over 25 years of history, impressive developments at their ballpark and a flair for publicity, the Arrows should be a great addition to the NBL.

Opening Day: a doubleheader at home against the Mildenhall Bulldogs.

Photo courtesy of SA Images
Southampton Mustangs (2009: 21-5 in the AAA South) website

Like the Arrows, the Southampton Mustangs earned a spot in the NBL by rising to the top of the AAA ranks in 2009. The Mustangs put together a very strong season, making it all the way to the AAA NBC Grand Final before falling short to the impressive Harrogate Tigers (champions of the Northern Conference). Their efforts to prepare for the 2010 season received a slight setback when scheduled games against the Bracknell Blazers and Richmond Flames were cancelled in Week 2 of the Herts Spring League; however, they were able to play a couple of games in the tournament and will return to Herts for their regular season Opening Day.

Opening Day: a doubleheader away to the Herts Falcons.

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Mildenhall Bulldogs (2009: AA Champions) website

The Mildenhall Bulldogs made their debut in the BBF leagues last year and they certainly made an instant impact. Alongside fellow United States Air Force (USAF) team Alconbury Braves, the Bulldogs stormed the Midlands League and made their way to the AA NBC. There, the Bulldogs dispatched the Manchester A’s 10-6 in the semi-final and then defeated the Braves 8-1 to win the Grand Final at their first attempt. The Bulldogs' quality was recognised when they were invited to make the big leap right up to the NBL, by-passing the AAA level in the process. Their 2009 form and 2010 Herts Spring League results, including a narrow loss to the Herts Falcons and a 14-3 victory over the Mustangs, suggest that they will not be overawed by the competition.

Opening Day: a doubleheader away to the Essex Arrows.

Photo courtesy of SA Images
Further details

Full details on the NBL competition can be found on the BBF website. All four of the doubleheaders are scheduled to begin at midday (Game Two in each case is scheduled to start at 14.30) and details of the venues can be found on the websites of the Arrows, Falcons, Mets and Pirates.

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